Sense of home and humanity in ‘A Stornoway Life’

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THEY say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But sometimes — as in the case of Acair’s latest release, the memoirs of Stornoway gentleman Pat Macfarlane — you can.

Entitled A Stornoway Life, from Scotland Street to South Africa, the book is a collection of Pat’s articles from the Back in the Day historical newspaper. It is charming, laugh-out-loud funny and full of personality — just like Pat himself.

The book has been edited by one of Pat’s nieces, Nicolson Institute rector Frances Murray, who loved the cover photograph of her uncle.

Taken by Fiona Rennie, the picture shows Pat deep in thought and looking into the distance, surrounded by his books. Acair designer Margaret Ann Macleod turned the books into black and white, leaving Pat in colour.

He is the life in the picture, just as he is the life in the book, with a personality that is vivid and present while also being thoughtful, with an eye to the past.

“Fiona Rennie’s pictures are fantastic,” said Frances. “We really like them. I like the way his personality comes through from the front cover photograph.”

The pictures were taken at Pat’s home at 16 Scotland Street. The family house for generations, it was built by Pat’s great-grandfather and was where he was born in 1920.

The book begins with Pat’s stories of his early years in Scotland Street and all the games, japes and ploys that went with growing up in that era.

Some of these stories are hilarious and one particularly good one — the one about the turkey that gave Pat the slip and ran away down Kenneth Street, across Bayhead, onto the quay and up the mast of a fishing boat — was the subject of a reading at Pat’s recent book launch in Stornoway library, which has held on his 95th birthday.

Frances recalled listening with rapture to these stories when she and her sisters were little girls. “We loved these stories because what he did was he acted them out — facial expression, actions, body language. He would be all the characters in the story.”

There are many stories of people and personalities in Pat’s book, which also talks of his service during the war years — he trained pilots how to land planes in early simulators — and his later years in Stornoway, where he became something of a town merchant.

He started a tweed business and had a number of shops, the most famous one being Loch Erisort, now owned by Hebridean Jewellery. It sold books, jewellery and fine china and was a great place to go for the craic, whether you were a local or tourist.

Frances said of the book: “It’s a nice summary of the big bits of his life and because the stories were such a big part of home, for us as children, it’s nice to see them in print. I like the fact that it’s of the community. It’s a record of a time past.”

Pat is very much a people person — “it has been said before”, he admits. He truly does not care what nationality a person is and is always looking for that common ground.

He is especially fond of the Germans, always finding them to be “friendly, well educated and intelligent”, and made a point of returning to Germany many years after the war to get to know the country better and learn a little of the language. There are some funny stories from that trip in his last chapter of his book. He liked the Africans too and his book is called “from Scotland Street to South Africa” due to the impression they made on him while he was stationed there during the war.

He said: “Their humour suited me and I could make them laugh. They kind of liked me because I acted the fool a bit.

“Fun and humour are the two things that should blend whole nations together instead of quarrelling and fighting and using arms. I know what it’s like to be under bombs.”

Pat lived through airstrikes in Aberdeen and Liverpool. While these were frightening experiences, Pat admitted he tended to “pull the blankets over my head” when the sirens went off, saying “I was too lazy to get out of bed”.

There were tragedies, of course, that touched him, such as the death of one particularly close friend, who was felled by a German bomber as he ran for shelter. Pat is clearly a pacifist who bears the scars, like so many of his generation, and he dislikes seeing a young person in uniform.

He only wishes today’s world leaders would learn the lesson of the past and behave more humanely. “I wish I could influence politicians to make more contact with other governments in friendly ways. I would like to see more medical conferences and similar things in other areas that might bring a lot of people together.”

“I think I’m more sympathetic to people’s troubles because you can have a lot of troubles even outside a war.”

In his foreword to the book, Stornoway Historical Society’s honorary president Sandy Matheson hailed it an “absolutely fascinating memoir” that is “much more than a history of the town over the last two centuries”.

Throughout, he said there was a “subliminal description of that most enigmatic and entertaining of characters — a Stornoway cove”.

Sandy described Pat “one of the last of that almost extinct species” of town characters who gave us their wit, wisdom, and “highly individual” views of life.

After being thanked by Pat for his kind words during the book launch, Sandy shot back: “I always wanted to be a fiction writer...”

They may be getting on in years, but there is no dulling of the wits here — arguably the most distinctive characteristic of a Stornoway cove. Long may they entertain us with their wit, wisdom and unique views of life. And when their stories can no longer be told, long may they be read.

A Stornoway Life, from Scotland Street to South Africa is available from www.acairbooks.com priced £10.50.